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The University of Southampton

HIST1147 The Real Downton Abbey

Module Overview

Life in the English Country House has long been a subject of fascination. The sprawling houses of the upper classes, complete with gardens, lands and hordes of servants, represent a way of life that few of us will ever experience. Recent television programmes, such as Downton Abbey, present a congenial view of the country house complete with cheery servants, friendly aristocrats, fabulous parties and the adoption of a 'brave face' against personal and national disaster alike. But was country house life really like that? Were servants really on such good terms with their masters? Was loss of fortune or the world being at war really so easily overcome? Did scandals, such as pregnancy outside of marriage, murder and abuse, really happen? Addressing these and other questions, this module focuses on the period 1870 to 1960, exploring life in the English Country House during one of its most tumultuous periods.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • life in the English Country House in the period 1870-1960;
  • the events which impacted on life in the English Country House during the period, such as world war, death duties, tax increases, economic shift, loss of Empire;
  • key secondary sources exploring English Country Houses, the aristocracy and the servant classes;
  • key primary sources illustrating aspects of life in the country house including inventories, diaries, personal and estate accounts, sale catalogues, maps and plans;
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • participate fully and constructively in group discussion, arguing your case by drawing on your reading, knowledge and understanding
  • analyse and critically a variety of textual, visual and material culture sources
  • structure your ideas and research findings into well-ordered commentaries and essays
  • contextualise a range of primary source material
  • engage with the secondary literature on the English Country House, the aristocracy and the servant classes
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • participate effectively in group discussion
  • develop your time-management skills
  • locate and use effective textual, visual and material culture sources in the library and on-line
  • research historical questions and communicate your findings convincingly and concisely in written reports


Over the course of this module we will focus on a number of different aspects of life in the English Country House between 1870 and 1960. During this period life in the English Country House changed almost beyond recognition – large country estates, complete with land, main house, estate houses, 'collections' (pictures, sculptures, books, porcelain, glassware, furnishings) and a large staff, became impractical, unmanageable and, as time wore on, far too expensive to maintain. The period was replete with events which forced the English aristocracy to change, including World Wars, less favourable governments leading to an increase in taxation for the upper classes, shifts in economic growth and loss of Empire. Each week we will focus on one or two houses, examining in detail what life was like and considering the impact of wider events on those living in the Country House, both above and below stairs. The module is delivered though a series of weekly lectures and complementary seminars. We will use a variety of source material contrasting real and fictionalised accounts of life in the English Country House, examining the veracity of series such as Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs and P. G. Wodehouse's Blandings. We will also look at presentations of English Country Houses from the period by bodies such as the National Trust and English Heritage. In addition to lectures and seminars providing introductory sessions, essay tutorials and revision classes, topics to be covered will typically include: • The social house – concerts, garden parties, shooting parties, dinners, racing, shows and fairs; • Living off the land: relations between the country house and its estate, estate workers, estate cottages and jobs on the land; • The ‘upstairs/downstairs’ relationship: families and their servants; • 'The scandalous upper classes': myth or truth? • The Country House at War – the impact of WW1 and WW2 on the country estate, including houses doubling as hospitals and servants and family members going away to fight; • Death and taxes: the impact of Death Duties, Entailment, shifts in economic growth and end of Empire on the country house way of life; • Facing the future: moving with the times and modernising the country house; • 'Everything must go' – the estate sales of the late C19th and early C20th, the impact of the Settled Land Acts, houses falling into disrepair and facing demolition; • Visiting the country house – how visiting started, the birth of the National Trust and the concept of the 'open house'

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include:  weekly one-hour lecture and one-hour seminar  detailed examination, analysis and discussion of sources  group discussions including feedback from the tutor Lectures will provide you with a general overview and understanding of chronology, sources and key concepts. This will be consolidated through readings and seminar discussions of primary and secondary source material. Presentations and subsequent group discussion in seminars will help you to develop your own ideas about topics, to analyse a range of source material and to articulate a critical argument. Learning activities include:  preparatory reading, individual research and study prior to each class  studying primary sources, including textual, visual and material evidence  participation in group and class discussion In this module, learning and teaching activities focus on helping you to explore and investigate the ideas and themes outlined above. Throughout the module you will also engage in directed and self-directed study, for example through pre-seminar reading and through library research. Your reading will provide you with a broad overview of the secondary literature, using the bibliography provided at the start of the module. The discussion generated within the seminars will provide you with the opportunity to explore the relevant major historical debates on a weekly basis. In addition, you will study in depth a range of primary written and visual sources, as well as surviving material culture. These sessions will allow you to prepare for the assessment exercises. Feedback on your progress and development will be given via seminars and group discussions.

Follow-up work45
Preparation for scheduled sessions45
Completion of assessment task20
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Kennedy, Carol (1982). Harewood: Life and Times of an English Country House. 

Mandler, Peter (1997). The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home. 

Jenkins, Simon (2003). England’s Thousand Best Houses. 

Girouard, Mark (1996). Life in the English Country House. 

Girouard, Mark (1979). The Victorian Country House. 

Horn, Pamela (2012). Life below stairs: the real lives of servants. 

Jackson-Stops, Gervase (1985). The English Country House, a Grand Tour. 

Burnett, David (1978). Longleat: the Story of an English Country House. 

The Duchess of Devonshire (1982). The House: A Portrait of Chatsworth. 

Horn, Pamela (2013). Country House Society: the Private Lives of the English Upper Classes after the First World War. 

Musson, Jeremy (2010). Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant. 

Cannadine, David (1990). The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. 

Montgomery-Massingberd (1985). Blenheim Revisited. 


Assessment Strategy

Feedback Method o Guidance and advice on preparation, completion and presentation of assignments will be available to you in special seminar discussions o You will be encouraged to discuss preparation for your formal assessments with your tutor o You will have the opportunity to seek individual advice on your module progress from your tutor o You will have the opportunity to discuss written feedback on assignments with your tutor


MethodPercentage contribution
Commentary exercise  (1000 words) 20%
Essay  (2000 words) 40%
Examination  (1 hours) 40%


MethodPercentage contribution
Coursework 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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